Staring into the eyes of the king of the swingers on Sumatra

Posted: April 7, 2011 in Indonesia
Tags: , ,

I’ve been looking forward to Indonesia for a long, long time. When we touched down at Medan airport in Sumatra, I was a happy man. It was time to explore a continent so diverse and immense that even 12 months here wouldn’t scratch the surface.

The briefest of touch downs in Malaysia

Our stopover in Kuala Lumpur had been rather disappointing; the plan was to head out to meet Muneeza’s friend in town for a session as our plane the next day wasn’t until 3pm. I booked us into the “5 star service at 1 star prices” Tune Hotel at the ICCT Terminal. The plane arrived late and by the time we checked into our hotel it was already past 11pm. We tried to get a meter-taxi to no avail and discovered that it would cost us over 100MYR (about £25) each way to the bar and at least 1hr each way. As the bars close between 2am and 3am, we canned the night out.

Our room is best described as a shoe-box. We struggled to find floor space to put our bags. You had to pay extra for towels and to use the electrictity! It’s the Ryanair of hotels. It was rubbish. The marketing slogan was no doubt dreamt up in a soulless boardroom where Tarquin squealed with delight, “Well what we really want to say is that our service is platinum but you don’t have to pay a high price”, to which Camilla replied, “So you mean 5 star service at 1 star prices, ya?” The board tossed each other off with such joy they never stopped to think about the reality of the service they were providing. Having worked in marketing for years, I doubt that is far off the mark.

In a rare moment of indulgence, I booked us a private taxi direct from the airport to our destination in the mountains, Bukit Lawang. We were greeted by a friendly chap but instantly hit rush hour traffic. Medan at rush hour is like Dhaka but add to this an incredible flood. The rain has been unusually heavy this time of year, much like Thailand, and the city’s drainage system is too basic to cope. The river was overflowing and the streets were awash with muddy water. The water level had already encroached up to people’s front doors by the time we passed through at 5pm and the rain was still cascading. We just hope people’s homes weren’t badly damaged.

The intrigue of arrival by night

It took a 3hr journey winding through the hills to reach the small town of Bukit, hidden amongst Sumatra’s finest rainforest. We arrived in the dark so had no concept of the town’s layout, just an impenetrable wall of dark forest on all sides. We were met at the drop off point (there are no roads direct to the guesthouses by the river) by Fii, one of the guides at Green Hill where we are staying. He informed me it would be a 15min walk to Green Hill. Already knackered, I then had heave the big bags the whole way, up and down small slopes, so that by the time was arrived I was drenched in the sweat that only humid rainforest can create.

To the bat cave, Robin

We woke up at a leisurely pace on Saturday 2nd and hit town to find a local SIM card so I could text home and wish my bro a happy birthday. Our walk through town was really calming; the people here are so friendly. I know I’ve written that often on our travels but it continues to be true. Indonesian people here are very relaxed and greet you with warm smiles and a cheery “Selamat pagey” (Good morning).

We decided to head out to find the bat cave a few km out of town along the bank of the Sungai Bohorok River. We crossed a new suspension bridge, gently swaying in the breeze, with the river rapids gurgling 20ft below. On both sides of the river you can see the verdant slopes of the rainforest, crammed with lush green trees and shrubs and the occasional sound of birds and monkeys echoing from within. It’s as if Bukit has been closed off from the outside world at nature’s behest.

The walk to the bat cave was fun. The rarely visible path winds past the Ecolodge and between local homes. It then heads out into the lower levels of the forest and the track deteriorates rapidly into a slushy mud trail that is churned up frequently by passing motorbikes. With no roads away from the main town, travel by motorbike along mud trails is the only feasible mode of transport but the heavy rains ensure it is hard going.

After 2km the trail takes a sharp turn inwards towards the rainforest. The entrance to the cave involves a steep climb up the crevice between slippery rocks. Basic wooden ladders help on the more dangerous sections. The entrance to the cave is wide and high and you are instantly hit by the smell of damp and bat sh&t. It’s an acrid smell. The cave consists of 3 main chambers but we were only game to find the darkest depths of the first chamber. Moving beyond involves a degree of crawling and that’s not my bag.

The cave is silent apart from the faint sound of dripping water that is present in every cave system I’ve ever been in. At first we couldn’t see any bats, we could only hear their shrill chatter. After a bit of probing with the torch I managed to discover the source of the noise; parts of the cave roof were covered with small bats. Most of them would have been sleeping, as it was midday by this time. We stayed around to enjoy the experience and then headed out before the afternoon rains came.

Muneeza at the bat cave

We stopped for lunch at a local shack over the river and had an incredible meal of rice, vegetables and curried pickles for less than £3. A lovely lady served it and the place was full of curious locals, surprised to see tourists away from the tourist restaurants.

Back at Green Hill we booked our 2-day trek for the next day and hit the hay to get some much needed rest ahead of the big day.

The pristine wilderness of Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser

After a hearty porridge breakfast we set off with Fii, our guide, to the national park in search of wild Orang-Utans. The entrance is accessed by canoe, crossing the river rapids. The strong current means the 30m crossing takes about 3 seconds. It’s a fun entry to a national park.

The Orang-Utan (Malay word for ‘person of the forest’) is the world’s largest arboreal mammal. It once was found throughout South East Asia, now sadly it can only be seen in Borneo and Sumatra. Researchers are fearful of the continued impact that deforestation for logging is having on these creatures’ natural habitat. Orang-Utans are clever animals and grow big and strong, up to 90kg. Their lifestyle is not compatible with a shrinking forest; they need vast spaces within which to swing freely. The co-owner of our guesthouse, Andrea Molyneaux, is a respected Conservation Scientist so we felt comfortable using her guides, confident they would respect the Orang-Utans and their environment.

Day 1 starts at 8.15am with a quick ascent to the Bohorok Orang Utan feeding platform. Twice every day rangers feed semi-wild orang-utans that are slowly being rehabilitated into the wild.  These animals have usually been displaced either human interference, either by the effects of logging or being held in captivity. The platform consists of a wooden shelf between two large trees. The viewing area is fenced off about 20m away. The rangers bang the platform with large stones to call the orang-utans. After 5mins of waiting we saw a distant movement in the trees, then a flash of orange hair teased our eager eyes. A few minutes later, with no sighting yet a lot of shaking of tree branches, a young female emerged from the canopy and gently swung down to be fed. Orang-utans are graceful animals; their movement is almost languid and they swing gently between branches, seemingly in no hurry. A troop of long-tail macacques surrounded the platform, eager to get in on the food action but the rangers kept them at bay.

The rangers got up suddenly and left. The reason became clear when a huge male Orang-Utan came into view. He was a genuinely wild animal and the rangers will never feed wild animals as it discourages their natural behaviour. We had to retreat to give the male space. He swung into view between two trees. It was a beautiful sight; his large, long orange arms held him in place and he looked intently at us. We left him in peace, eager not to compromise his personal wilderness. 10mins later as we headed along the trekking trail, he swung back into view, seemingly following us, intrigued. I looked straight at his eyes and he leaned his head towards me and looked straight back. It was a wonderful moment.

Male Orang-Utan in Bukit Lawang

We encountered another 6 Orang-Utan in the next few hours as we marched up and down the steep slopes of the rainforest. The paths here are treacherous in places as the heavy rain strips away the surface foliage and reveals slippery mud tracks. The slopes are steep so if you slip, there is a genuine danger of bad injury. We had to focus hard to remain upright. It’s no surprise that the Orang-Utans were able to keep track of us as they glided elegantly through the trees above us.

We had heard the stories of the famous Orang-Utan, a female called Mina. She is renowned for her aggression towards guides and visitors. It’s the fault of humans of course. Over the years many tourists, encourage by irresponsible guides, have fed her food. Now when she sees a human with a bag, she expects food. If none is forthcoming, she gets angry. Apparently more than 70 guides and 2 tourists have been injured over the years. We came face to face with Mina in the heart of the forest. She appeared as if by magic and started walking towards us. One of our guides tried to distract her but she was intent; she started to run for us. Fii told us to run back quickly; we obliged. I’ve never seen Muneeza move so fast! Eventually, after about 10mins of being chased, Mina scarpered up a tree. The cause was the presence of another female, Jacqui, of whom Mina is afraid. The pursuit by Mina was then replaced by being stalked by Jacqui, baby Orang-Utan around her waist. Jacqui followed us for nearly 30mins and the guides, though not scared, were a little bit concerned that we didn’t come to any harm. This is the Orang-Utans home and if they don’t like our presence, who are we to argue?

Sleeping under the stars

The afternoon was really tiring. We had to snake up and down the steep hills to reach our camp by the river. The hills became increasingly steep and going down was hard, dangerous work. I slipped many times and Muneeza was finding it hard going on her knee. We were relieved when we emerged from the trail around 4pm and saw the fresh, rushing river infront of us. To get to the camp down the river we had to sit in a rubber tube and be guided through the rapids. The current is so strong that you need an experienced hand to get you across safely.

At camp the sweaty clothes came off quicker that a teenage boy. After 8 hours of sweat it was amazing to jump in the cold river and wash the pain away. The current, even in the shallows, was still strong and if I let myself float I was taken quickly downstream.

We were joined at camp by two Dutch girls who we had met earlier on the trail. They were lovely and spoke incredibly good English, so conversation flowed well.

The camp was as basic as it gets. The tent had been made with bamboo poles for the shell and plastic sheets hung over the top to prevent you getting wet and to insulate from the wind. There are no doors and the whole structure is open to the elements and to wild animals. There were 4 of us, 2 guides, their assistants and the chef. The chef whipped up a surprisingly good meal for such as basic camp; chicken curry, fresh fish from the river in a garlic stew, tofu and vegetables, rice and a lentils dish. After a long day, it tasted like heaven and we ate ourselves into a satisfied slumber.

Camp at Bukit lawang

The girls chilled beneath the tent and I went off with 2 of the chaps for a spot of night fishing, which involved sticking a rod in the rocks (no childish giggles please) and then rolling a big joint. I’m not sure if catching fish was really the aim, or simply the chance to escape the non-smokers and get stoned. Either way, I’m all for embracing foreign cultures, so I helped them. We spent the next hour chilling beneath the stars, surrounded by the night noises of the forest. It was a serene experience.

We headed back to the tent and then the local boys decided it was time to mess with our minds. Over a few glasses of ‘jungle juice’ (gin with passion fruit) they showed us various mind tricks to see if we could get the answers. Some of them were highly creative, using matchsticks to create visual puzzles. Others involved classic card tricks but my mind was too shot to cope.

The final game was called The Orang-Utan Game, a card game that involved making the right actions depending on what card was drawn; for a joker you had to laugh like a crazy man, for a king you had to salute and say “to the King”, for a Queen you had to comb your hair with your hand and say in a girly voice, ‘The Queen’ and so on. It was made up by one of the stoners one night in the jungle. It may sounds rubbish but after a few drinks and a smoke, I couldn’t stop laughing even if I didn’t understand any of it. What made it better was that one of the chaps has the funniest laugh I’ve ever heard. He was funnier than the game.

We passed out late beneath the starry sky. It took me a while to drift off because the sounds of the forest are hard to ignore once they get inside your head. It wasn’t a great night’s sleep; the ground was so hard, we had no mattress. Every time I turned, I woke up. At daylight I got up and sat by the river to enjoy the break of day.

Rubber dingy rapids, brother

Day 2 was an easier affair; we decided to take the gentle trek to the waterfall. We walked up river and crossed twice using the rubber rings. There were 2 waterfalls; the higher one was accessed by a slippery mud path and was about 20m high. The lower waterfall was easier to reach and about half the size. Fii encouraged me to dive in and join him for a Jungle Massage; this involved standing or sitting beneath the cascading water where the pummelling of the water created a natural massage effect. Initially reluctant I responded to his call of “never try, never know”.

It was worth it. The massage felt great. After a night sleeping on hard mud and rocks, my back and shoulders needed it. It actually became quite addictive and I ended up lying down under the torrent of water and giving my whole body a deep muscle massage. We stayed for an hour, enjoying a fruit picnic that one of the chaps prepared for us, a healthy cocktail of passion fruit, pineapple, watermelon, banana and orange.

Natural water massage

We left and returned to camp for a light lunch before making the journey back to Bukit. The return journey was done by raft so we didn’t have to walk any further. The raft was constructed by roping 4 large rubber rings together; at the front all our gear was stored in waterproof bags and one of the guides sat to steer using a wooden pole. At the rear sat the chef with another pole to guide the raft. In the middle we sat, two people to each ring. It was great fun and we got soaked. The rapids are quick but not too manic so it’s easy to stay in the raft. It’s not the most comfortable way to travel, with Muneeza leaning back into me for 40mins so I could no longer feel any sensation in my important parts.

We enjoyed a few beers with the guides at the guesthouse before hitting the hay early for a much needed sleep.

We spent our final day in Bukit kicking back and soaking up the jungle vibe. In the afternoon we hired rubber rings (a bargain 80p each) and ventured back to the river for a spot of tubing. The starting point is the crossing to the national park only 5mins walk from our guesthouse. At this time of year the water level is still low, so whilst the rapids are quick enough to make it fun, they’re not too sharp to make it potentially dangerous.

The trip down river is fun. The rapids spin you in and out of rocks, through deep waters and the shallows, sometimes dragging your backside over a hidden rock. It was a good mix between calm sailing and a fast soaking. At the jumping off point, just before it starts to get a bit more intense, there is a large rock face where you can jump and dive into the deep water. I leapt in and forgot about the current, so when I thought I was at the surface I was actually a few feet below. I surfaced having inhaled half the river.

I would love to come back and trek for longer to get deeper into Gunung Leuser. The Orang-Utan is truly the king of the swingers; no disrespect to people from Essex.

Love jamer & muneeza x

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